Monday, January 11, 2016

Film Review: It's A Gift

"It's A Gift"  **** (out of ****)

W.C. Fields. He built a career on a comedic persona as a man who hated dogs, women and children. In "It's A Gift" (1934) he takes full advantage of his public persona.

"The American Dream". One aspect of it goes something like this; we will all live in a nice big house with a white picket fence around it. We will get married and have two adorable children. One son and one daughter. We will work hard, save money and provide for our families. We will always have the love and support of our families.


Out of this idyllic sentiment, created to turn people into work slaves and give them a false sense of accomplishment, came W.C. Fields.

In 1934, as "It's A Gift" was being released, Hollywood, was beginning to enforce the Production Code - a set of guidelines aimed at promoting decent, American values. One of the institutions Hollywood would have liked to preserve was domestic life. It is supposed to be bliss. With that in mind it is astonishing W.C. Fields was able to make any movies at all, let alone become one of the greatest comedians of all-time, a legend. Mr. Fields was a slap in the face to the code and the American way of life.

Often movies tell us the two lovers kiss and the movie ends happily ever after. Well, what's next? Enter W.C. Fields. In "It's A Gift" Mr. Fields plays his usual character of a man who lives in a household where he is unappreciated. He has a nagging wife, who even complains in her sleep (!) and two children that generally regard him as inferior. Mr. Fields is a man uncomfortable in his own home. The home is not his castle.

This theme is immediately established in an opening sequence as Harold Bissonette (Fields) is trying to shave. His daughter, Mildred (Jean Rouverol) wants him to hurry up so she may enter. Harold tells her she may as he is only shaving. The daughter immediately hogs the mirror, brushing her teeth, her hair, gargling and putting on lipstick. Meanwhile Harold is desperately trying to shave.

While the audience is supposed to laugh at this, at the same time, we are to sympathize with Harold. The poor man can't even shave in his own home. Despite whatever the flaws of his character, Mr. Fields always presented him as a sympathetic character, the hero of the story. Another slap in the face of the Production Code. Mr. Fields, including his Harold character, we not sinners seeking redemption. There is no life lesson for them to learn.

Next we are treated to a sequence involving the family about to eat breakfast. Harold trips and falls down on one of his son's (Tom Bupp) roller skates, as his wife, Amelia (Kathleen Howard) warns him about not breaking their son's skates. It cost a lot of money to have them repaired. Arms start flying, as everyone is grabbing food off the table, all before Harold can grab a piece of anything. Then Amelia informs Harold of a telegram they received. Harold's uncle is on his death bed. Harold doesn't show much emotion however the prospect of the uncle's passing opens the door of an inheritance. With this money Harold secretly wants to buy a orange grove.

Here is something a depression era audience could relate to; a working class man coming up with a get rich quick scheme. A poor man dreaming of a better life. Audiences today could relate to that story, couldn't they? I would have even been willing to bet this orange grove was a nod to John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath", another story about an American family heading west, believing a better life waits for them as fruit pickers. It would have made a nice theory and a good inside joke unfortunately Mr. Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939.

None of the family wants to travel to California, where the orange grove is. Amelia opposes because she doubts Harold knows anything about the orange business. She would rather spend the money on improving their house. Mildred doesn't want to go to California because it would mean an end to her relationship with John (Julian Madison), who sold the deed to the orange grove to Harold.

But, Harold stands firm and takes all of their criticism. He knows better than them. He has a vision, a dream. He is positive the orange grove will lead to prosperity.

"It's A Gift" is rather light on plot. Nearly everything described to you takes place in the first 15 minutes of the movie. The rest of the movie is comprised of comedy sequences.

Harold owns a grocery store and a large amount of time is devoted to hijinks which ensues in the store from one man waiting for someone to take his order of kumquats to a blind man who enters and nearly destroys everything in sight with his walking cane. No doubt liberals today would not approve of this, stating the movie is making fun of the handicap, the blind in particular.

Another funny sequence has Harold trying to get some sleep on his back porch. Amelia has been nagging the whole night, so Harold decides to lie down on their swing hanging up on the porch. As soon as he lies down a parade of noise begins from the milkman, a traveling salesman selling insurance and two people shouting at each other. Not to mention the swing doesn't seem strong enough to hold Harold.

I can see why the absence of a stronger plot would lead some to dislike "It's A Gift". It lacks a central conflict. There is no antagonist they will say. I can see their point. In another movie I might agree but that doesn't seem to apply to "It's A Gift". The antagonist is the family. The American way of life. The conflict is Harold trying to get to California and if the orange grove will be as Harold expected. The purpose of the movie is to showcase Mr. Fields. That is why the movie is a collection of comedy sequences instead of a three act traditional narrative.

This was quite common in the 1920s and 30s in American comedies. The movies didn't have strong plots they were just might to be potboilers for the star. It doesn't matter whether it was Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy or the Marx Brothers. The movies were just strung along by a series of comedy routines. What makes one movie better than the next is how funny it is.

"It's A Gift", for me, is the best comedy W.C. Fields starred in. Unfortunately I am not sure it is well remembered. The sheep (movie critics) and the general public only seemed concerned with throwing praise at "The Bank Dick" (1940). While that is a fine movie, one which you will see many of the same themes explored, "It's A Gift" I find to be funnier and it takes a sharper aim at domestic life. The story seems more appropriate for the curmudgeon Mr. Fields play.

Still I must admit, W.C. Fields usually works better when he is playing against someone, hence the appearance of Baby LeRoy, who has a very small role in the movie, which makes it all the more amazing the top billing he receives. Mr. Fields was very good when appearing opposite Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. McCarthy and Mr. Fields were "rivals" on the radio, with Mr. Fields often threatening to turn McCarthy into firewood. A good straight man in "It's A Gift" may have only added to the humor.

"It's A Gift" was directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who also worked with the Marx Brothers on "Horse Feathers" (1932) and several Bob Hope comedies including "The Paleface" (1948) and "Casanova's Big Night" (1954) and based on a story by Charles Bogle (W.C. Fields) with a screenplay by Jack Cunningham, who also wrote another W.C. Fields comedy, "The Old Fashioned Way" (1934).

I am usually slightly hesitant to credit directors and writers on W.C. Fields movies because I believe Mr. Fields had total control of his comedies. No one was going to "direct" W.C. Fields.

However, if you are unfamiliar with the comedy of this great man, "It's A Gift" is a fine example of his comedy persona and the themes usually found in his comedies. It is a comedy masterpiece.